Fewer effects of cannabis are more well-known than its inherent ability to make you feel sleepy. Depending on who you speak to, this particular quality can be considered a curse or a blessing. For many people, such as those who suffer from insomnia or other sleep disorders, inducing tiredness is their primary reason for using cannabis products. However, for others, it may restrict when they decide to schedule in a smoking session with friends or blaze up alone.
Despite the legalisation of cannabis in various jurisdictions around the world and growing evidence that cannabis use isn’t associated with decreased motivation, the stereotype of the lazy stoner remains popular to this day. Perhaps this persistence is linked to the generally accepted view that weed does leave us feeling sleepy and relaxed.
But why does cannabis have this effect on us? Why does weed make you tired?
Well, there could well be a number of reasons – none of which are that straightforward (as we’ve come to expect when discussing this complex plant). So, strap in because we’re taking a look at some stoner science to gain a clearer idea of what is behind the sedating power of weed.
How does cannabis affect sleep?
Cannabis contains hundreds of unique compounds, many of which have been found to have a significant effect on various bodily functions and processes, including sleep. However, while our relationship with cannabis may date back thousands of years – during a significant chunk of which we have been aware of the sedating effects of the plant – our understanding of how cannabis affects sleep is still far from fully formed.
One compound that has been the subject of particular interest in this area is our old friend THC – the most common cannabinoid found in cannabis. There are a couple of theories for how THC exposure could influence our sleeping habits, the first of which involves the so-called “pleasure” hormone, dopamine.
Cannabis, dopamine, and sleep
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that is responsible for feelings of pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation. This compound is released when we carry out rewarding acts such as sex, eating, and even exercise (dopamine is partly to thank for the “runner’s high”). But apart from making us feel satisfied, dopamine also plays a role in our attention, helping to keep us on task.
THC exposure, like the other examples listed above, can cause a spike in dopamine levels – but that’s not the end of the story. Some evidence suggests that, while dopamine may initially increase after cannabis use, prolonged exposure, or consuming too much THC, could actually lead to a decrease in dopamine. This potential biphasic effect suggests that, while consuming a small amount of cannabis may not make you feel tired, consuming higher quantities could have you snoozing on your friend’s sofa in no time.
But, as usual with cannabis, the story is far from as simple as that. While it might seem that we should be able to say: just don’t smoke too much, and you won’t feel tired – other evidence suggests that this may not be the case, after all.
Frequent cannabis use and sleep
Other studies have indicated that lower doses of THC may actually help to decrease sleep latency (how long it takes to fall asleep). This may be at least partially behind the potential benefit of cannabis for insomnia and other sleep disorders. However, according to a 2017 literature review, long-term cannabis use could impair sleep quality. Other studies indicate that THC may suppress REM sleep in frequent cannabis users. This could affect our dreams and potentially help to reduce nightmare frequency in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The bottom line is, research on THC and sleep is still in its infancy. Much of the existing clinical evidence in this area is of low quality and much more insight is needed before we can really be sure how THC really impacts our sleep. Still, real-world evidence and patient reports appear to support the use of cannabis as a sleep aid – at least in the short term.
What about CBD?
Cannabidiol – better known as CBD – has become popular in recent years as consumers increasingly look to take their health into their own hands. This common cannabinoid has been found to have impressive therapeutic and wellness potential and for this reason, countless people around the world have adopted CBD to help with a number of ailments, including to improve sleep.
Again, clinical evidence in this area is limited but some findings are promising. For example, one study assessed 72 individuals presenting with anxiety (47) and poor sleep (25) at monthly intervals following the clinical application of CBD. The results showed that two-thirds of participants experienced improved sleep in the first month; however, scores fluctuated over time. CBD was also associated with increased sleep satisfaction compared to placebo in patients with REM sleep behaviour disorder.
You might be reading this thinking, “but wait… cannabis doesn’t make me feel tired. It makes me feel energised.” Well, we did say that cannabis is a complex plant!
While the general consensus may indicate that cannabis is a sedating, calm-inducing plant, it’s important to remember that everyone is different – and so is their relationship with cannabis. It is far from uncommon to be left feeling energised after smoking or otherwise consuming weed. Other people may find that they actually find it more difficult to sleep after using cannabis. And while public opinion is somewhat mixed – so is the evidence.
Why might cannabis keep you awake?
We have already touched upon the potentially sleep-worsening effects of frequent cannabis use, but there could be other reasons that weed is keeping you awake. A good place to start is with the other potential side effects of cannabis.
Sure, weed can be a lot of fun – it can even be a life-changing medicine – but there are some downsides. Some cannabis users can experience heightened anxiety and paranoia – particularly when using products that are higher in THC. This can trigger a number of responses in your body, essentially placing you in “fight or flight” mode, in which you alert and, as a result, awake. If you think this might be why weed is keeping you awake, it might be best not to indulge too close to bedtime.
Of course, it is possible that cannabis keeps you awake without triggering feelings of anxiety. As we said, everyone is different – and so is their response to cannabis. Nevertheless, it is important to always use cannabis responsibly and be aware of any side effects you may experience.